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PART 2: The UAE and sport

Sport as a power means helped the UAE, as a small state, to put itself on the international arena, gaining more recognition and interest from other nations

Published: Updated:

States with small sizes consider sport as an essential power means, which helps to bring international recognition and increases the level of tourism, which has political, social, economic advantages. State-branding strategies and soft power, as elements of sport political tool, are essential for small states as they help to put these states onto the international stage and attract citizens of other nations to visit them by improving their reputation. Moreover, according to theoretical studies of small states, small territories are vulnerable because their smaller populations and territories limit their power in areas such as military strength. As a result, these states seek political strategies to increase their international recognition, which in turn serves as a guarantee of national security. For these reasons, the UAE has successfully used sport as a power means. Further analyses demonstrate that the UAE leadership views sport as a power means, and the use of sport is mainly created through soft power and state-branding. The UAE government has invested in sport, creating sport infrastructure and different sport schools and academies, which benefits national politics by improving citizens’ health, improving sporting prowess, and increasing national interest in sport in general. Moreover, these benefits also improve the image of the UAE among other states in international power politics. Hosting of global sport competitions and investing in famous sport clubs for the creation of soft power and state-branding has became a successful example of how small states can use sport to become more visible and gain international recognition.

However, in the UAE, the 2016 Olympics were partially controversial: a single Olympic medal was won for the UAE, by Sergiu Toma in judo, and this initiated an intense debate about whether non-Arabic athletes should be able to represent the UAE in the Olympics at all. The source of the controversy was the offer of UAE citizenship for foreign athletes who could then participate in the UAE’s Olympic delegation. Among them, in addition to the Moldovan Sergiu Toma, were the Ethiopian sprinter Betlhem Desalegn, and the Moldovan and Russian judokas Victor Scvortov and Ivan Remarenco (Breitbart, 2016). Among the main disadvantages of allowing foreigners to represent the UAE, according to some critics, is that their involvement undermines the state’s national character; and that it was embarrassing to see the national flag being carried by a man with no connection to the state or the Arabic language (ibid, 2016). The idea here that allowing foreigners into the UAE Olympic team somehow threatens the connection between Arabic nationals and their cultural heritage, is a concern that is also expressed by some analysts because of concerns that foreign athletes would replace potential native role models who could inspire patriotism, and encourage citizens to represent their country.

However, according to the main Fundamental Principles of Olympism, written in the Olympic Charter (2013), any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement. In other words, their opinions are against the fundamental rules of Olympism. It is therefore arguable that in voicing their dissatisfaction, sceptics may inadvertently harm the image of the UAE. These arguments could lead to the state being seen internationally as discriminating against other countries or people, based on their religion, politics or gender, which contradicts international law, and would harm the state’s image internationally.

In contrast, the UAE government has worked hard to promote the principles of equality and respect regardless of differences, following a unique model based on tolerance, openness and coexistence: hosting Christian and Muslim events and conferences, establishing a Ministry of Tolerance and Council for Tolerance, the UAE Tolerance Centre, and other supporting initiatives such as the National Tolerance Program, the UAE Charter of Tolerance, Coexistence and Peace, and the Tolerance Responsibility Programme for Organization (National, 2016). His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, the ruler of Dubai, and also the UAE Cabinet chair, pointed out ‘the UAE, under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan will continue to promote the principles of tolerance established by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. As tolerance is a key value of our ancestors and our founding fathers, the UAE has succeeded in spreading it throughout the Arab region and the world.’ (United Arab Emirates the Cabinet, 2016:1). Simply put, the sceptical view of discrimination against ‘foreign’ athletes not only contradicts international law, but also the main principles and development of the state itself, which are developed year on year. This successful policy of tolerance assists in improving the image of the UAE worldwide, and promoting the UAE’s main domestic and international values of tolerance, respect, and coexistence as a soft power tool; and therefore also improves their ability to project influence within the Arab world and worldwide.

The second point is that there is no need for the medals in the Olympics or other sport competitions won by foreign-born athletes, as the main goal of government’s sport policy should be to inspire and motivate native children to participate in sport. However, as discussed above, sport should unite people and bring national pride, with the younger generation looking up to successful athletes, and working hard to achieve the goal of Olympic medals. Moreover, high rankings in the medal table during the Olympics can help to improve a state’s image internationally. Further examples demonstrate that most national teams which rank highly in the medal table are proud to have ‘foreigners’ in their national teams. For example, in 2016 50 'foreigners' represented the US, of whom 8 won medals (Immigration impact, 2016), while, in the 2012 Olympics one third of Great Britain’s medals were ‘won by immigrants’ (Telegraph, 2012). The US and the UK support professionalism among athletes, rather than considering their nationality or other discriminative factors. In order to motivate children they should consider real examples of success by their citizens, as bringing in professional coaches who have won at the Olympics and other sport competitions and could share their experience with the younger generation irrespective of their nationality or background. UAE rulers have a clear strategy about how sport is essential to increasing its image globally and creating opportunities to make sport popular among people.

The UAE is one of the leading states in the Middle East in creating opportunities for its citizens to participate in sport activities. Sport can be a lifestyle for people of all ages and levels of professionalism, and the UAE creates outdoor activities in order to improve its international image (FutureBrand, 2010). In other words, the UAE government makes clear efforts to promote UAE state-branding and soft power through sport. Among the most popular sports in the UAE are football, cricket, tennis, table tennis, cycling, golf, badminton, motorsports, camel racing, falconry, and endurance riding. The Dubai Sports City and Dubai World Championship golf competition, known as the Race to Dubai, with its infrastructure for tourists, is a global sporting hub (FutureBrand, 2010). Along with hosting international events, the UAE is also home to different academies: Spanish Soccer School is a football academy; ICC Academy is a cricket academy which helps players, coaches, and curators focus on progress, training and achievements; the Swimming Academy is the first swimming facility in the UAE to have high performance training and coaching; the Butch Harmon School of Golf, associated with the renowned coach Butch Harmon; and the Rugby Academy, which focuses on the development of talent in all age groups and standards up to and including elite, global levels. As a result of this policy, people successfully participate in sport activities. The Dubai racing driver Mohammed bin Sulayem has won 14 championships and 60 races, while another UAE-born sportsman, Khalid Al Qassimi, won the 2004 Middle East Rally Championship and scored seven victories in the World Rally Championship between 2007 and 2011. By creating opportunities by building infrastructure and opening sport academies the UAE has helped its citizens to succeed at a professional level, compete with other athletes around the world, win competitions and, as a result, achieve high results in the rankings. This in turn has brought international recognition for the UAE.

In terms of its state-branding strategy and soft power, the UAE has also made efforts to invest in well-known sport teams, and to host global sport events. In 1996, the Dubai World Cup was launched as the world's richest horserace. In 2004 Emirates Airlines purchased the naming rights of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London. Emirates also sponsor AC Milan, PSG, and Real Madrid, as well as Arsenal. In 2015 the FA Cup was referred to as Emirates FA Cup as part of a sponsorship deal (Daily Mail, 2015). Abu Dhabi United Group includes Etihad, a name associated with the Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City Football Club. The UAE has deals with the US Open tennis tournament, the International Cricket Council, the USA Rugby Union Team and the Ryder Cup (BBC, 2014). The Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship (part of the ATP World Tour 500 Series), and several motorsport races have been hosted in the UAE: the Dubai Grand Prix in 1981, for the purpose of build a circuit in Deira Corniche; the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge; and Formula One races from 2009 onwards. Dubai’s Creek Golf and Yacht Club is the hub of the Middle East’s first golf academy. All these initiatives have brought global recognition and helped to establish a positive image of the UAE. It seems that the UAE’s successful experience of implementing sport competitions at a high level demonstrates the advantages of sport as a power means which can bring global recognition to the state, and increase interest from other nations, tourism in the country, and global prestige.

The analyses of the UAE case before and after Rio 2016 demonstrate that the government created opportunities for those who aspire to careers in sport, by building infrastructure and creating academies and schools for citizens of all ages and levels. As a result, the successful results of the UAE athletes, and high placings in rankings, have already brought international recognition for the state. The medal-table ranking is also essential as it helps to promote a state’s image. In addition, at the international level, the UAE policy of hosting the world’s high level sports events and investing in worldwide professional sport clubs is one the best examples of state branding and soft power policies within the region. Internationally, sport has helped to promote the state’s image beyond its borders and increase its prestige. Sport as a power means helped the UAE, as a small state, to put itself on the international arena, gaining more recognition and interest from other nations.

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READ MORE:

PART 1: Sport as a power tool

Part 3: Sport sanctions against Russia

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Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, Political Islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010).

Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter University in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She tweets @diana_galeeva and can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk